The changing verb phrase in present-day British English

Findings

The Perfect

Research questions:

  • Is there evidence of recent change in the overall frequency of the perfect construction in spoken British English?
  • Is the same pattern of change seen for the different tense forms of the perfect (present, past, and non-finite)?

Summary of main findings:

  • Overall, there is a statistically significant decline in the frequency of the perfect construction from LLC (1960s-1970s) to ICE-GB (1990s).
  • The different tense forms of the perfect show different patterns of change:
    • The present perfect (the most frequent form) shows no significant change in frequency.
    • The past perfect and infinitive perfect both show statistically significant declines in frequency.
Tense category LLC ICE-GB Change in frequency
raw   pmw   raw   pmw   %   A: χ²
(words)
  B: χ²
(perfect)
present 3,572   8,020.17   3,343   8,277.17   +3.20%   1.72ns   21.71s
past 835   1,874.82   484   1,198.37   -36.08%   62.40s   41.74s
infinitive 652   1,463.93   413   1,022.58   -30.15%   32.90s   19.71s
-ing participle 78   175.13   58   143.61   -18.00%   1.31ns   0.46ns
Total 5,137   11,534.05   4,298   10,641.72   -7.74%   15.18s    

Table 1. Frequencies of perfect auxiliary tense categories in DCPSE
(figures in bold are significant at p<0.05).

The table shows two distinct series of chi-square tests. Column A compares the distribution of each term with the total number of words. Column B compares each term relative to the trend of the overall set of perfect auxiliaries. For example, Column A shows that the slight percentage increase of the present perfect is not considered significant compared with the number of words, while Column B shows that it does differ significantly from the overall pattern.

The normalised (pmw) percentage change over time from LLC to ICE-GB subcorpora can be plotted in the form of a bar chart, shown in Figure 1 below. The error bars represent p<0.05 confidence intervals.


Figure 1. Changes in pmw frequencies (Table 1 '%' column) with error bars for p<0.05.

Note that the data in Table 1 exclude instances of the 'semi-modal' HAVE got [to] (as in a lot of work has got to be done on it), but include instances of the combination HAVE + got which occur with an NP object and express a stative meaning (e.g. he's got two kids 'he has two kids'). These stative examples involve an idiom which is historically derived from a perfect construction. They are frequent in the present perfect data and should be taken into account in a detailed analysis of that category. However, they do not affect the findings summarised above: if the data are recalculated to exclude such examples, the overall pattern remains similar.

The Perfect Infinitive

A more detailed investigation was made of the perfect infinitive. A great majority of examples of the perfect infinitive in the corpus (88%) occur following a modal auxiliary, while the remainder occur in contexts following the infinitival marker to. Modal auxiliaries have themselves declined in frequency in our data. This led us to pose a further question.

Research question:

  • Can the declining frequency of the perfect infinitive simply be attributed to the declining frequency of the modal auxiliary as a potential context of occurrence?

Summary of findings:

  • When potential modal contexts and to-contexts are taken as the baseline, it is shown that the proportions of perfect infinitives fall within both types of context. Therefore the perfect infinitive shows trends of decline that are independent of the decline in modal auxiliaries.
perfect infinitive no perfect infinitive Total Summary
LLC 561 (7.37%)  7,050 7,611 % change = −21.90
(c.i. ±11.20%)
ICE-GB 371 (5.76%)  6,074 6,445
Total 932 (6.63%) 13,124 14,056 2×2 χ² = 14.69 s

Table 2a. Changes in the proportion of perfect infinitives in
modal contexts in the LLC and ICE-GB components of DCPSE.


perfect infinitive no perfect infinitive Total Summary
LLC  87 (1.33%)  6,447 6,534 % change = −51.83
(c.i. ±25.86%)
ICE-GB  40 (0.64%)  6,197 6,237
Total 127 (0.99%) 12,644 12,771 2×2 χ² = 15.44 s

Table 2b. Changes in the proportion of perfect infinitives in
to contexts in the LLC and ICE-GB components of DCPSE.

For additional details, a draft version of a paper by Bowie and Aarts (forthcoming 2012) can be downloaded here. A further paper includes a detailed study of the past perfect (Bowie, Wallis and Aarts, forthcoming 2012) and can be downloaded here. These and other papers can also be downloaded from the main page for the project, The changing verb phrase in present-day British English.

This page last modified 12 June, 2013 by Jill Bowie.